Arafat Poisoning Report Ambiguous and Inconclusive

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Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat pauses during the weekly Muslim Friday prayers in his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 31, 2002

Yasser Arafat lived in ambiguity and died under circumstances shrouded in mystery and rumor. Should it come as any great surprise that the outcome of a scientific inquiry into the cause of his demise turned out to be something less than absolute as well?

The forensic examination of the Palestinian leader’s remains were released by his widow Suha on Tuesday, and immediately reported by al-Jazeera — the Arab satellite network that last year broke the news that Arafat’s clothes and personal effects contained suspicious traces of polonium 210, the radioactive isotope that killed Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

Swiss scientists exhumed Arafat’s body last November and tested his skeleton and grave for telltale evidence of the isotope. The verdict, a full year later: “The results moderately support the proposition that the death was the consequence of poisoning with polonium 210.”

Such a moderate word, moderately. It isn’t strongly, and certainly not conclusively. Details of the forensic examination might well encourage belief in the poisoning theory, laid out in table form — pro and con — on page 67 of the 108-page report, and clearly accumulating on the pro side. But every page of the PDF posted online carries the watermark of al-Jazeera, a marketing move of dubious value for a news organization that provokes such strong reactions all by itself, and is heavily invested in the story.

Locked-room mysteries are supposed to end with satisfying clarity — an inescapable conclusion put forward by a scrupulously objective investigator to an assembled audience. Arafat’s death was a locked-room mystery three times over: the contaminated personal effects, according to his wife, “had been stored for eight years in a secured room at the fourth floor of her attorney’s office in Paris,” the forensic report says. His body — its skeleton diagramed in the forensic report — was entombed in a glossy mausoleum guarded by Palestinian sentries in downtown Ramallah since its 2004 interment.

And of course Arafat took ill in a locked room — barricaded in the Ramallah office where he’d spent two years during the second intifadeh besieged by Israeli tanks in the rubble of a nascent but still yet-to-be-born Palestinian state.

If he were poisoned, the question is: Who had the ability to slip it into his plate of chicken and rice?

Israel is the answer that leaps to many minds. Within hours of the al-Jazeera report, Palestinian advocates were circulating a partial list of Israeli assassinations of Palestinians. But spokesmen for the Israeli government have long denied any involvement publicly, and, privately, Israeli security officials have debated the question along with everyone else — not something that happens when, for instance, an Iranian nuclear scientist is rubbed out.

But suspicion also clings to Arafat’s inner circle. It’s a logical suspicion given the crucial question of access to his food — and the Swiss study assumes the polonium was ingested (which the report says might explain why, while he displayed other symptoms consistent with radiation poisoning, his hair did not fall out). Some analysts say the “insider” scenario is supported by the dire political situation at the time — the Palestinian cause was being held hostage with Arafat unbending at its helm, leading his people — many believed — nowhere.

On Tuesday, the abiding intrigue was heightened not only by the Swiss scientists’ report, but also by the way it came to light. Instead of being released by the Palestinian Authority, which had allowed the exhumation of Arafat’s remains, it came out on al-Jazeera, where his widow declared: “This is the crime of the century.” It made headlines on independent Palestinian outlets like Ma’an. But the 9 p.m. newscast of Palestine TV carried not a word. Conspiracy theorists were left to their own devices on the reason why.

“These results should be taken with a few grains of salt,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told the Guardian, which also had a piece of the story. “This story is still as mysterious as it was on Day One.”

— With reporting by Rami Nazzal / Ramallah